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Countercultural HR recommendations: can what worked for Netflix also work for NGOs?

Should NGOs leaders heed the advice from the former head of HR at Netflix, in their efforts to remain relevant as well capable of innovation and scale?


In an era of anxiety about remaining relevance – at least in some quarters of ‘NGO land’ — I would venture that it is worthwhile to listen in to this podcast with Patty McCorden, who headed HR at Netflix until recently, and now consults with many startups and other companies. Her thoughts and positions are stimulating and at times provocative. Mark C. Crowley, author of the book “Leading from the Heart” as well as the corresponding podcast series, interviewed Patty recently. I appreciate Mark’s podcast interviews, with their focus on the crucial role of emotional intelligence in leadership. And kudos to Mike Harold at Greenpeace, who put me onto Patty McCorden’s book “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility” in the first place!


Here are counter cultural recommendations that NGO leaders should heed:

HR too often is backward looking (‘how was your performance in the past year?’); instead, it should be be forward looking: what kind of people does our organization need in 1-2 years? This may be quite different from what we have at the moment. 

HR should not be focused on retention but on the match between where the NGO will need to go soon and the people (skills, competencies, attitudes etc.) that it will need correspondingly. When current staff – including those who may have been ‘star performers’! – no longer match  what the organization needs, it is the role of HR to start conversations early on about changes that are on the horizon, and support HR can give to staff in the form of connections, references, job search support, etc. for people for whom there may soon not be a match anymore. These conversations and support systems will optimize people’s chances for a good next career move.

it is important for NGOs therefore to be fully transparent about the state of the organization, what key organizational level performance indicators are indicating about changes that may be needed in role, strategy, business models etc. NGOs need to share this data transparently with staff. This way, people can prepare their minds for impending changes and take action accordingly.

Anecdotally, the culture of many INGOs that I interact with seems to make it hard to discuss these aspects openly. Some scholars and practitioners think this is due to the passion that NGO staff frequently bring to the cause their organization represents, and the amount of identity that people thus have caught up with this. I will write more about this aspect in future blogs, because I see this to cause some real problems – which we do not talk about openly enough in our sector, and which causes plenty of ‘dishonesty in our discourse’ in my view.

Our NGO sector should therefore heed some of these HR approaches, because not doing so ultimately limits the impact of our organizations, which is not in line with what we say we are about – maximizing impact. Doing so is also ultimately unfair to staff, because it does not prepare them for necessary and successful transition in this era of disruption, including because of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (a term coined by Klaus Schwab of the World Economic Forum, about the seismic disruption purportedly impending due to digitalization, Artificial Intelligence, robotics, biotechnology etc. ).
So, what are you taking away from Patty’s recommendations for your NGO?
And what do you think of Patty’s phrase that HR leaders are the “COO of the organizational culture?” What does this imply for you as HR or OD leader, on a daily basis?
 

Let me know! Sign up for my future reflections. And let’s talk if you want to discuss any of these trends and issues.

 Here are some links to help you dig deeper, as a start:

Lead from the Heart interview by Mark C. Crowley with Patty McCord: http://markccrowley.com/patty-mccord-parting-ways-with-traditional-leadership-rules-is-how-netflix-built-its-hugely-successful-culture/

Netflix’s culture story: https://jobs.netflix.com/culture

McCord’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/patty_mccord_lessons_from_a_silicon_valley_maverick_new_ways_of_working_and_collaborating

Article in Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr



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